May 23, 2005

Summer Breeze bill meshes three disparate genres

Last Saturday night the Major Activities Board (MAB) served up the most major of its activities, the Summer Breeze concert, held in Hutchinson Courtyard, which was described by the show's opener, songstress Julie Roberts, as "very pretty." Indeed, Hutchinson Courtyard provides an interesting setting for a concert. The Gothic jungle created by the excess of ivy crawling up the Reynolds Club seemed to transport concertgoers out of the South Side of Chicago.

Music started pumping from DJ Blockhead's speakers as soon as people started trickling in via Botany Pond. The courtyard was almost half-full when Julie Roberts and her band sauntered onstage to start the show. Roberts, who seemed to have gone a little crazy with the BeDazzler on her jeans, belted out most of her debut album along with a surprising string of covers. On a whole it was better than expected—this coming from someone who doesn't necessarily appreciate the Shania Twain school of country singers.

I particularly enjoyed the appearance of the guitar solo, now an endangered staple of the pop genre. Roberts's original songs were heartfelt and spoke from experience without straying too far from the current female country-crossover mold. The selection of covers got me moving a bit more though. Paying tribute to Linda Ronstadt and Bonnie Rait, Roberts and her band ripped through the covers, while she imposed her own style upon them. Perhaps the most surprising of the covers was the set-closing Stones classic "Honky Tonk Woman." Though it was quite entertaining to hear these songs (and surprising that a modern pop starlet would have respect for them), it was not, in fact, the Rolling Stones wailing away on stage (but I guess I'll have to wait until September to hear that at Giants Stadium).

After about half an hour of spinning from DJ Blockhead, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists took the stage in front of the now more than half-full courtyard. The band set up a rhythm section that was apparently two-thirds borrowed, and was itching to get going while the DJ was finishing up. To be quite honest, I found little to criticize about this band. Their set, unlike Roberts's, was entirely original, because the band has a bit more material to draw from, and their style seemed to fit the tastes of many U of C hipsters and indie music fans in general. The music was excitable and jumpy, but not anywhere near as heavy as most of today's underground bands. Overall, the band successfully jarred the blandness out of Roberts' semi-sweet set. Their energy pulled the crowd into a lot of songs, blistering through their set despite what Leo considered a poor sound set-up, as well as a busted string towards the end, for an act that suitably pumped the crowd for the main attraction—Nas.

As the sun went down and Ted Leo's stage was cleared, the crowd seemed to double in anticipation for the seasoned hip-hop persona. The self-proclaimed "Street's Disciple" took his time getting onstage, allowing his personnel to check the sound system meticulously. Once his touring DJ started spinning and inquiring of the crowd, "What the fuck is up?," the rumble of impatience turned into a roar of satisfaction. The entire crowd seemed magnetically drawn to him as he turned through some of the tracks from Nas's most recent album. When the rapper prompted, the entire crowd's hands went up, moving and grabbing at the words and energy emitted from the microphone. Nas connected instantly with the crowd by borrowing a pair of sunglasses from a crowd member to block the spotlight that Ted Leo referred to earlier as "the light of a thousand suns."

After getting the crowd sufficiently excited through what seemed like the ultimate Nas mix tape, the artist took a portion of the show to pay some respect to other hip-hop artists that have influenced him, as well as to gauge what influenced the crowd, which greatly appreciated old-school Tribe, as well as frat-house standbys such as "Jump Around." After paying respect to his predecessors and peers, Nas turned to the recent verbal scuffle between himself and newcomers G-Unit, commenting, "We're a big hip-hop family, but some times people hate on you…and you got to hate back," and then diving into "Hate Me Now."

The most exciting moment of the show came just before Nas broke out his most recent hits "I Can" and "One Mic." He began to talk about what it was like listening to hip-hop and being part of the culture ten years ago in Queens. Feeling a little nostalgic, he asked if anybody in the audience could break dance, and maybe bring a little of that time back. Responding to the pointing by many of his friends, student Shane Hopkin was pushed onto the stage and wowed not only the audience, but also Nas himself. To see that someone of Nas' status has the respect for his fans that he showed on Saturday night does a lot to restore my faith in popular music.

All in all, MAB did well to provide an evening of music that reached to three distinct types of music listeners, as well as providing artists who could cross those barriers. While I do not consider myself a connoisseur of either hip-hop or country, and I really only pretend to be indie, I felt as if each artist was accessible to the entire crowd in some way, and the fact that three distinct genres can come together like that makes me feel a little better about a music world that seems to be increasingly flooded with commercial disinterest in its fans.